Blackhawk installs upgraded PWC engines to improve aircraft performance
Operators get new engines with more power for their turboprops at 25% to 30% over cost of standard overhaul.
By Mike Potts
Blackhawk leadership team on the ramp in front of the company's facility at ACT. Sr VP of Sales, Marketing & Business Development Bob Kromer, CFO Mickey Bitcon, President and CEO Jim Allmon, VP of Human Resources Lynnette Allmon and VP of Engineering David Gee.
In the automotive world the idea probably can be traced back to the first hot-rodder: Put a bigger engine in a car to make it go faster. In aviation things are a little more complicated with requirements for airworthiness and STCs, but for Blackhawk Modifications in Waco TX, that's basically the business model—get more performance with a bigger motor.
Jim Allmon, president and CEO of Blackhawk, doesn't claim to be the first to offer more performance with a bigger engine. He readily admits to borrowing the idea from his former employer, RAM, which offers piston upgrades for Beech, Cessna and Piper products. Allmon's new spin on the idea, however, was to do it with turboprops.
What RAM does for pistons Blackhawk does for turboprops
President & CEO Jim Allmon has built Blackhawk from an idea and a single STC to an organization that has modified more than 500 aircraft in the past 15 years and now holds more than 30 STCs.
In fact, Allmon says he tried to get RAM to add turbines to its product mix while he still worked there but the company wasn't interested. Not long afterward, however, Allmon was running Aurora Aviation, an FBO at PWG (McGregor-Waco TX), when he was offered a chance to buy an STC to put Pratt & Whitney PT6A-135A engines on Cessna Conquest 1s.
"I knew the value of an STC from my RAM days," Allmon says, "so I pitched the idea to my business partners but they were skeptical. The idea represented a lot of money and a lot of risk and there wasn't anyone else I could point to who was successfully in the business of upgrading business aviation turboprops." Nonetheless, Allmon was confident the idea was viable and he convinced his partners, Dale Griffin of Texas and Matt Shieman of California, that together they should buy the STC and give the business a try.
Blackhawk Modifications opened for business at PWG in 1999 but the initial startup was somewhat discouraging. "We knew we needed to have a contract with Pratt & Whitney to buy engines but we couldn't get anyone there to even talk to us," Allmon recalls.
Undeterred, Allmon began asking around the industry and eventually, through a contact at Basler Turbo Conversions in Oshkosh, he got the name of someone at Pratt & Whitney. A meeting was arranged in Montreal and Allmon and his partners prepared their business plan presentation.
Initially Pratt & Whitney wasn't interested
VP of Engineering David Gee is responsible for managing Blackhawk's current crop of more than 30 STCs and developing new ones. He has more than 30 years of experience with engineering projects involving Pratt & Whitney PT6A-powered aircraft.
"We found ourselves sitting in a room with 4 lawyers and 7 to 8 engineers," Allmon remembers, "and at the end of the meeting they told us, 'no thanks.' Pratt wasn't interested in selling engines to a little known startup that no one ever heard of."
Still determined to get an engine contract, Allmon and his partners tuned up their business plan and persuaded Pratt & Whitney to schedule another meeting. Blackhawk's second trip to Montreal, about 3 months after the first, would prove to be more productive.
"Maybe our presentation was better or maybe something was changing at Pratt and they saw a chance to sell some new engines," Allmon says, "but they finally said 'okay, we'll give you a chance.'"
But that didn't automatically mean easy sailing for Blackhawk. Pratt drove a hard bargain, insisting that Allmon and his partners agree to buy 24 engines over the next 5 years and personally guarantee the contract. Moreover, if Blackhawk didn't take all 24, Pratt would back-charge the price on the engines they did take to full retail.
Sales Coordinator Amber Dunkin makes sure the approximately 40 steps required to accomplish a Blackhawk STC, from initial order to final STC paperwork, are successfully completed.
"I swallowed hard, but we agreed," Allmon recalls, thinking, "if I can't sell 24 engines in 5 years, I'm not much of a salesman."
To get things launched, partner Dale Griffin purchased a Conquest and the airplane was converted. "I didn't think we could just sell the idea on paper," Allmon says. "We had to have hardware that people could touch and experience. Once the airplane was finished and properly sorted out, then we started to market it."
Phone selling proved effective
Allmon's primary approach was to use the phone. "I would call prospective customers and say 'we're going to be in your area next week and we'd like to demonstrate the airplane.' Sometimes they'd say 'I'm not going to pay for that,' and we'd say 'We're not asking you to.'"
Customer Support Specialist Don Moore tracks Blackhawk-converted aircraft after they are returned to service, even if the aircraft's ownership changes.
The added performance of the PT6A-135A engine in the Conquest was clearly impressive and orders were soon rolling in. "We sold 24 engines in 18 months," Allmon recalls. With Blackhawk off to a strong start, he sold the FBO at PWG to concentrate on the engine conversion business.
Business was good for Blackhawk but Allmon immediately recognized the inherent limitation—Cessna had only built 236 Conquest 1s. "We knew we'd never get them all. In fact, I thought we'd be lucky to get maybe half of them," he says. So he turned his sights on bigger game—the Beechcraft King Air C90.
Allmon was aware that an STC already existed to put a PT6A-135 in a C90. It was held by Ed Swearingen of San Antonio, who had marketed it as a "Taurus" conversion. So Allmon decided to contact Swearingen to see if it might be for sale, knowing it would be easier to start with an existing STC.